Controversy in the classroom

A lot of young men and women use their time in college to search, learn and grow. The classroom becomes a place to explore viewpoints, test opinions and create a dialogue among other students. This is the common notion of the college experience, but does the University of Denver do well to generate such an environment? Do students feel comfortable speaking freely in the classroom, or are the silenced by an atmosphere unwelcoming of candid conversation?

It’s about comfort

Raising a hand and speaking out in class can be difficult, especially on a controversial topic that may condemn the speaker or offend another student. Danny Brown, a junior and Media Studies major, is well known across campus for breaking boundaries and boldly expressing his opinions, no matter how contentious.

DU students don't always agree. The graffiti wall outside of Driscoll shows conflicting viewpoints existing side-by-side.

DU students don’t always agree. The graffiti wall outside of Driscoll shows conflicting viewpoints co-existing on campus.

“I do feel comfortable talking about controversial topics in the classroom,” said Brown. “I have, though, faced much backlash when it comes to this. Once during freshman year, I was in a communication class with about 50 people and the classroom was stadium style so there were a lot of people behind me. I tried to make a point, but due to people disagreeing with me, as well as not being able to make myself clear, about five people started yelling at me for being ignorant.”

Brown admitted that while it may not be fair for other students to promptly shut him down, his demographic limits his knowledge and experience in some ways.

“I also recognize that as an upper class white male I come from a place of privilege,” said Brown. “So when it comes to issues like racial, gender and economic oppression, I hardly know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable. It might help if the professors laid down some safe space rules.”

Because of his extroverted nature, speaking out in class is not a problem for Brown. However, not all students share his ease with expression.

It’s about Confidence

Junior Maddy Donlan, a Computer Science major and former member of the DU Improv Team, Skintight Outrage, usually remains quiet in the classroom.

“Generally I do not feel comfortable speaking in class,” said Donlan. “I don’t like raising my hand in general, unless I am 100 percent positive on what I am saying. For me it’s a confidence thing.”

Speaking out in class on a topic that is controversial can be a grueling experience for students who do not feel as though the environment is a safe space to generate discussion. For Donlan, whether or not this safe space is created is entirely subject to the class and the professor.

“I had a teacher once,” recalled Donlan. “Who started the first day of class by saying, ‘this is a group discussion; I want you guys to bash heads. I’ll be the mediator, and if it starts getting out of hand, I’ll step in.’”

“This immediately made me feel more comfortable,” explained Donlan. If the teacher does not say something like that, I have trouble speaking out. I feel uncomfortable potentially angering somebody or being judged. I once had a writing class with a professor who was really good at encouraging all of us to express ourselves. It was fun, and I think we all learned a lot in that class. But I think that in a lot of my other classes, there have not really been discussions; they have mostly been about the students being told ‘what’ and ‘how.’”

While it is important that professors facilitate conversation in a welcoming environment, it is also on the fellow students to allow a dialogue in the classroom.

Maddy Donlan explains why it is difficult to speak up in class.

Maddy Donlan explains why it is difficult to speak up in class.

“There are a few of my viewpoints that I am not very good at describing,” said Donlan. “If I try or attempt to, instead of people trying to help me and understand, I sometimes get chastised immediately or judged by other students. DU has diversity in some ways, but in some ways, we also don’t. There a lot of people that come from the same socioeconomic standings. Those standings influence their opinions. Along with financial support, your thoughts are also supported, and so it’s easy to always think that you’re right instead of really opening up and seeing the world through other people’s eyes. It gets to be really hard when trying to speak in class because you don’t know what the person next to you is going to think. Are they going to hate you? Are they going to talk about that dumb thing you said in class?”

It’s up to teachers and students

On the other hand, Maddy Nesbit, a Communications major, does not have an issue with criticism from other students.

“I feel comfortable speaking in class,” said Nesbit. “I took a public speaking class. I’ve always liked [speaking out.] I like hearing other people’s opinions, and there are very few subjects that I would get upset over. I think it is up to the individual.”

There appears to be a couple factors that go into creating a classroom where DU students feel comfortable expressing their opinions and testing their views, the main consensus being that it is up to both the professor to facilitate a healthy dialogue, and the students to remain open-minded to debate and discussion.

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